Today
Thu 28 October 2021

Volunteers helping to supply food and support to vulnerable people during lockdown tell Gill Oliver and Anna Wagstaff how the social welfare system is failing

When her husband walked out during lockdown, emptying their joint bank account, Nina Balqui was left penniless.

But after applying for Universal Credit, the visually impaired mother of three was told it would take five weeks for any money to come through. “Social services asked us if there was anything we could do to help,” recalls community volunteer Sue Holden. “We were on her doorstep within an hour, with food, teddy bears, activity packs and reading books and we made sure she was looked after, every single week.”

This is one of several stories shared by Holden, who heads Barton Community Association in Oxford. At the height of the first COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, the group supplied almost 300 food parcels a week to residents in the eastern part of the city.

In Oxford, as elsewhere across the UK, thousands of volunteers mounted a massive grassroots effort. But while collecting prescriptions and delivering food parcels, they also discovered the daily realities of those who, even in normal times, struggle to get by in modern Britain. 

This is the bleak reality revealed in Destitution in the UK, a report published on 9 December by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. More than half a million children in the UK are living in ‘destitute’ households, the charity suggests, and that number has doubled since 2017.

The pandemic has aggravated social deprivation and exposed gaps in state provision, according to Sara Fernandez, chief executive of volunteering group Oxford Hub. Partnering with the city council and others, Oxford Hub helped to set up Oxford Together, in response to the lockdown.

Illustrating the failings of the UK’s social welfare system, Fernandez tells the story of a mother who contacted her in tears after a supermarket cashier rejected the food vouchers she had received to replace her child’s free school meals.

Volunteers at work helping pack food parcels. Photo credit Ed Nix

A queue built up behind the mother as the cashier tried but failed to get the system to recognise the voucher. Ultimately, she left without any food, feeling publicly humiliated. The problem was the voucher was a ‘voucher for a voucher’. It needed to be entered into a website that would issue another voucher for a specific supermarket. The website was hard to navigate and could not cope with the traffic. With limited data allowance on her mobile and a cracked screen, she wasn’t able to scan the code and had no access to a printer. Fernandez, fortunately, was able to help.

Ending the cycle of deprivation, according to Fernandez, requires the creation of supportive relationships that allow people to ask for help they need not just to survive, but to break out of poverty. However, this is not how the welfare system works, she says, describing early discussions with the city council about how to deliver support as a “culture clash”. 

Differences arose over who should receive food support and how. “They were trying to only do deliveries to people who had need ‘arising from COVID’ and obviously there are so many grey areas. The council doesn’t do grey so well,” Fernandez says.

Other groups preferred to stay independent of the council. Oxford Mutual Aid, also founded in response to the COVID-19 crisis, describes itself as a “community of volunteers”. Founding member Muireann Meehan Speed says many of those who need help are failed by current tick-box dogma. “You have to fill in a form or qualify, and there are people who, for whatever reason, are excluded,” she says. “Then you have a very real barrier, which is feelings of shame around it.”

Oxford Mutual Aid is supporting as many as 300 families a week and partners with a number of organisations, such as university colleges, to deliver hot meals. Meehan Speed points out there was already “significant food poverty in Oxford,” before COVID-19, something backed up by official figures. She is visibly angered by the idea that by delivering food, organisations are creating permanent dependency. Rather, she describes it as “the normalisation of solidarity”.

Trusted relationships can be even more essential in supporting people within black and minority ethnic communities. Mujahid Hamidi co-founded the Oxford Community Action collective, in response to research showing that many black and minority ethnic people don’t make use of public services like health or housing, unless led there by people they trust. “We facilitate that access. We have to overcome all these differences so they feel ready to accept help in whatever way we can provide,” he says.

Mujahid Hamidi of Oxford Community Action. Photo credit Ed Nix

When lockdown started, Hamidi’s group worked with volunteers from each of Oxford’s diverse communities to deliver food parcels where needed. In April, they were supporting 40 households a week – it has since risen to 400.

These families would be highly reluctant to ask for help from council-run services, according to Hamidi. “There’s a lot of pride in communities and people who are struggling. If their friends or neighbours saw a council van coming to their house, there is stigma. We overcome that by making sure that the food would be delivered by people from their own communities. So it looks like their friend just came round and dropped off some food,” he explains.

Lockdown also exposed gaps in existing services. Oxford’s teachers were quick to understand the implications on pupils of closing schools – and so took on responsibility for their welfare. The headteacher of a primary school on the outskirts of Oxford argues this is a role teachers have been quietly filling for years, without recognition or resources. “With all the austerity measures, a lot of the safeguarding comes down to us,” she says

Indeed, she says a “good chunk” of her day was regularly spent supporting vulnerable families, even before COVID-19. Yet where there are serious concerns, teachers face hurdles when it comes to escalating the case to social workers. “They are so overstretched. We get frustrated on our part, but we know it’s because they are bursting at the seams,” she says.

During the first lockdown, the school drew up a list of 25 families to check by phone, although those children were not on the official ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ lists. “A lot of children should have these extra layers of support but they’re not there,” the headteacher says. “All of that should have been in place beforehand. There’s just no flexibility, no lee-way in the system at all to cope with a big crisis.”

Sue Holden cites similar challenges, explaining that social services often refer residents to Barton Community Association. However, when volunteers refer people in the other direction, demanding more support from social workers, it can be weeks or months before anything happens. “Services need to be quicker to react. That means they have to have funding in place, resources, staffing, and until that happens the system is never going to improve,” she says.

She would like to see more recognition and support for the contribution made by community groups like hers. And she questions whether being obliged to spend days filling out grant applications and evaluations is the best use of their time.

Sue Holden, head of Barton Community Association. Photo credit Ed Nix

Hamidi echoes the point. He appreciates the support offered by the council – including the use of a van and driver to distribute food packages, alongside a one-off grant of £5,000 – but he feels more must be done to facilitate voluntary community efforts, which plugging huge gaps in the system.

“We are just a bunch of volunteers,” he says. He calculates the cost of running their support service on a paid basis would be between £2,000 to £3,000 a week. “It is the people in each respective community who know how to manage and manoeuvre and develop and up-skill. We need organisations like the council to help facilitate that, fund it or lend resources or contacts or volunteers or something like that that can help close these gaps.”

Fernandez believes the council is beginning to better understand and appreciate the value of community action, as a result of the lockdown experience. “I feel we have made lots of progress… and they’ve been really open to feedback. The pandemic has highlighted how complex these things are, but I think it’s made local authorities much much more aware of how their services need to be much more bespoke.”


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